Switching to Barefoot Running?

Running with shoes on.

You may have seen people wearing those funny looking sock type shoes with separate toe compartments and wonder what in the world were they thinking. This type of shoe is a minimalist shoe or barefoot-style shoe meant so that the feet are near barefoot while protecting the foot from abrasions. Studies are showing that there are benefits to running barefoot.

Is Barefoot Better?

At first glance it makes little sense to run with no padding or cushioning to the feet, especially when 20 to 80 percent of runners having had some type of lower extremity injury. As it turns out, running shoes that are highly supportive and cushioning may be part of the problem.

When runners wear shoes they tend to run with the heel striking first. Apparently when runners take the shoes off they tend to run lightly with the forefoot (ball of the foot) or mid-foot (flat foot) striking first. This method of running allows for less pounding and fewer injuries.

According to a study by Harvard University and, in part, by Vibram USA, about 75 percent of people who wear running shoes will heel strike. The reason for this could be that the high heel of the shoe causes the person who would normally strike mid-foot when barefoot, would then heel strike while wearing a shoe.

History

According to the study our ancestors ran barefoot or with little footwear. While running they landed on the mid-foot or forefoot and were able to run safely and comfortably. Running shoes were not invented until the mid-1970s. Before then people ran in simple running flats with no heel, sandals, moccasins, or barefoot.

Benefits of Barefoot Running

Barefoot runners who have a forefoot strike have minimal force with no shock on the body. Heel striking generates a significant shock on the body. This shock wave goes up through the body by the skeletal system.

The shockwave sent through the body by heel striking is similar to being hit on the heel with a hammer at up to 3 times your body weight. This would happen 1,000 times if a person were running a mile according to the Harvard University study. They do point out that some running shoes have heels designed to reduce some of that force.

  • Barefoot running can lower the rates of injury because of its lower impact forces. The forefoot and mid-foot running helps to avoid stress injuries like stress fractures.
  • Barefoot running makes the foot muscles, calf muscles, and the arch stronger.
  • Barefoot running uses less energy because striking with the forefoot causes a natural spring in the foot and the calf this uses less energy. The feet are also lighter with no shoes.
  • Many people like the feel of the ground against their feet.

Disadvantages

Since most people have been wearing shoes while running it may take a while to break the habit of having the heel strike first. It is painful to strike a hard surface with the heel so many will switch to the forefoot or mid-foot strike.

  • Feet and calf muscles need to be strong in order to run with a forefoot or mid-foot strike.
  • Running over glass and sharp objects could cause injury.

How to Run Forefoot

First try running on a hard smooth surface like a track or tennis court and let your body guide you. Everyone is different. Some people prefer forefoot running while others prefer mid-foot.

The skin on the bottom of the foot may become sore until calluses are developed. Until this happens, use minimal shoes that have no heel, no arch support, and are flexible.

  • Walk barefoot frequently.
  • While running, the landing should be gentle, relaxed, soft, and springy.
  • Avoid over striding because this will add stress to the Achilles tendon, calf muscles, and the arch of the foot.
  • Sore muscles, tired feet, and feeling stiff is common as you learn to run barefoot because it requires the use of the foot and calf muscle which are probably weak.

It surprises many people that running barefoot can have less of an impact on the lower extremities than running with shoes. With a proper running form, you will be able to enjoy less injuries and stronger muscles.